Town manager Hardin Watkins has resigned to become the city manager of Burlington.
Watkins was unanimously approved by the Burlington City Council after multiple closed sessions Monday night, according to the Time-News, which first reported the hire.
“I’ve enjoyed a great 8.5 years here in Garner and have worked with some wonderful people,” Watkins said in an email. “As you know, the citizens of Garner are stellar people and I will miss the many good friends and colleagues that I’ve gotten to know during my time here.”
Watkins will make $174,000 at his new position, nearly $30,000 more than he makes currently, according to the Times-News. Watkins now makes $147,451 per year.
In his resignation letter, Watkins said his last day will be Jan. 4 and that he will start his new position on Jan. 11. He also highlighted his accomplishments since he was hired as town manager in 2007.
One such accomplishment was helping get a $35.7 million bond referendum passed in 2013, which led the way for major projects in town, including a new police station, recreation center, sidewalks and a new town hall.
Garner was also designated as an All-American City in 2013 by the National Civic League, and the police department, parks and recreation and public works department all received national accreditation from different organizations.
“I don’t blame him at all,” council member Gra Singleton said. “That’s what he wanted to do. I congratulated him and wished him well.”
Council members and the mayor said it was an opportunity for Watkins to advance his career.
Burlington has more than 51,000 residents, according to 2013 U.S. Census data, and a bigger budget than Garner, according to Watkins. Garner has about 27,000 residents.
Singleton said he and the town manager didn’t always see eye-to-eye.
“But me and my wife don’t always see eye-to-eye either,” Singleton said. “That’s just the way it is. We have a lot going on right now and a lot of things happening. It was a pleasure to work with him. I hope things work out for him there.”
Council member Kathy Behringer said she was not surprised that Watkins was leaving. She said he was absent on Thursday and Friday for two weeks in a row last month.
“And that certainly raised some suspicions,” she said.
She said it will present a challenge for the council, as it is also searching for a town clerk and finance director. Long-time town clerk Judy Bass retired last month, and finance director Emily Lucas will take a job as the deputy finance director for Wake County later this month.
When asked if Watkins had done a good job as town manager, Behringer said: “There were some things I would have done differently, but overall, yes.”
“Nobody is perfect and nobody gets it right all the time,” Behringer said.
Behringer said when Watkins was first hired, council members met with him to discuss the vision for Garner and what they expected him to carry out. She said council members asked him how they would know when he had achieved the goals council members set for him.
“And his response was ‘When other cities and towns ask you how you did it,’” Behringer said. “And that has happened.”
Council member Buck Kennedy said the same.
“I hated to see him leave,” Kennedy said. “We certainly didn’t always agree on things, but I still hate to see him leave.”
“I’ve told him and other people that when Garner gets in a fight and a debate, and it looks like it forces are aligning that do not favor Garner, I want Hardin leading the charge for Garner, because he is very energetic and will be aggressive and perservere to the end to defend the town.”
“He is certainly not a passive individual.”
The move for Watkins was not surprising, as he had come under fire earlier this year by the Garner town council for not reviewing the 2015-16 budget document carefully before it was released.
The town inadvertently released the names and salaries of employees in the fire department, which hurt morale because some fire fighters wondered why others made more than they did. Although their salaries are public information, no other department’s salaries were released in the budget document.
During Watkins’ 2014 annual review, council members set several goals – including building a better relationship with a fire department that suffered from the lingering effects of 2010 embezzlement charges against a former employee.
The town council had considered hiring a consultant to be a neutral voice and aide in its annual evaluation of the town manager. But the consultant decided against it after the council’s plans became public.
But things seemed to be on the mend recently, with the town council expressing gratitude for Watkins’ efforts to update them on the happenings in the town more often.
Williams said Watkins had been good for Garner, where a lot of growth happened under his leadership.
“Hardin Watkins is a true professional and worked hard for the town of Garner and the citizens of Garner,” he said. “They have benefited from him being manager.”
Council members say it is likely assistant town manager Rodney Dickerson will serve as the interim town manager, as he has done in the past.